Ivan Ilyin was one of the hundreds of intellectuals sent packing in 1922 aboard one of the “Philosophers Ships.” He first settled in Berlin and became a university professor. Although he initially lavished praise on the Nazi Party and celebrated its rise, his attitude changed after he ran afoul of Hitler and was relieved of his professorial duties.
Ilyin left Germany and spent the remainder of his life in Switzerland, where he became the chief ideologue for the All-Russian Military Union (ROVS). It was intended to be a fighting force of White Russians ready to resume the war with the Bolsheviks when circumstances allowed.
Ilyin produced many tomes that crystallized the philosophical underpinnings of the White movement. But the ROVS withered and eventually became little more than a White Russian version of the American Legion. Ilyin too faded into obscurity and irrelevance. He died in 1954 at the age of 70.
But in the 2000s, things began to change: in death Ilyin has found his greatest significance. At the initiative of film director Nikita Mikhalkov (Burnt By the Sun), Ilyin’s papers were repatriated to Russia in 2006 after decades at Michigan State University. A year before that, his remains were reinterred at Moscow’s Donskoi Monastery. President Vladimir Putin told media he had personally paid for Ilyin’s headstone.
Although Ilyin disavowed his earlier praise of the Nazis, he maintained an advocacy for authoritarian conservatism, seeing in the Iberian dictatorships of Franco and Salazar a model for Russia.
Present-day assessments of Ilyin are deeply divided. Yale historian Timothy Snyder has called Ilyin a fascist. Canadian professor Paul Robinson, who wrote a book about ROVS and operates the blog Irrussianality, has posted curt rebuttals, saying Snyder’s label for Ilyin is off-base.
The controversy is anything but academic, because Putin has elevated Ilyin by referring to his ideas in speeches and even making works by Ilyin required reading. French journalist Michel Eltchaninoff has dubbed Ilyin the Russian president’s “first philosophical love.”
The geopolitical implications are significant. Ilyin wrote that “Russia will not perish as a result of dismemberment, but will begin to repeat the whole course of her history. Like a great ‘organism,’ she will set out again to gather her ‘constituent parts.’”
In addition, he predisposed his readers to an adversarial outlook, by asserting that, “the peoples of the West neither understand nor tolerate Russian originality,” and therefore aim “to force (Russia) under Western control, dismantle it, and finally, make it disappear.”
According to Eltchaninoff, Putin’s lionization of Ilyin has reignited the debate over whether the White emigration engendered a Russian brand of fascism.
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